The Willow – A Martial Arts Parable
-By Michael Benjamin
(Published in the April 2002 issue of Inside Kung-Fu Magazine).
Three young monks were finishing their afternoon Ch’an in the temple shade when the
senior abbot approached them for some rhetorical discourse. As their heavy eyes opened
from their meditative state they saw the old monk observing them diligently. His eyes
were at once potentially fierce as the Autumn’s lightening, but also calm and pure like the
Great Sea’s eastern horizon. His bronze and aged skin shone darkly under the mountain
sun like the hairless palm of a brown bear’s paw.
“In the course of your studies,” said the abbot, sitting down gracefully into the folds of
his saffron robe, “you have been made aware of the teachings that exist all around you in
Nature, the Tao and the Dharma everywhere and in all things. You have been pointed to
the lessons of the animals; of the forest, rivers, and mountains; of the sky, and the stars,
and the wind; of each other and of yourselves. Please tell me then, what in Nature’s
bountiful plentitude offers us the most profound insight into quanfa? What single
symbol, what metaphor of the Universe provides us with the greatest understanding of
The first monk to answer was a large and strong youth whose quanfa was reputedly very
powerful. He was known to have wounded a leopard barehanded after being attacked
one day as he walked in the woods seeking berries.
“The tiger is the ultimate symbol of quanfa,” said the boy to the abbot.
“Why?” challenged the old man flatly.
“Because the tiger is fierce and strong and no animal in the forest may challenge him.”
“A mighty foe indeed,” agreed the abbot, removing a pinky finger from his itchy left ear.
“But the tiger kills without thinking or feeling, without judgment, by his instinct alone,
simply to satisfy his own hunger. Do you think this the proper motivation for a Shaolin?
To be led by bodily appetite?”
The boy blushed as the abbot continued. “Can a tiger choose to ignore his hunger for the
benefit of others? Can he fast to purify his body and mind? No. Though the tiger is as
sacred a brother as any in the forest, he cannot provide us the best insight into quanfa.”
The next monk, an older but thinner boy, spoke out hastily, feeling assured he had
formulated the proper answer to the abbot’s query. “Sifu. . .It is the stream. Yes.” He
smiled confidently to himself. “The stream shows us the wisdom of quanfa. The stream
flows with both fluidity and power, with grace and swiftness. It is like our blood, or our
qi, carrying its vitality to the roots of the forest, the fish, and the animals, onward, out to
the depths of the distant ocean. The stream carries its current like the knowledge passed
along through the centuries, from sifu to disciple, temple to temple, town to town, on and
on. Yes sifu. It is the stream.”
The old monk paused briefly, reflecting on what he knew of this young man. He knew
the boy spent ample time skipping stones across the stream behind the temple wall, his
mind wandering into daydreams when he should have been practicing his forms.
“Like the tiger, the stream does possess admirable qualities worthy of emulation, “ said
the abbot. “But tell me, can the stream change its course once it’s run?” Does it have
any choice but to flow the way the terrain dictates? Can it follow any other path that the
one of least resistance? Is this the way of the Shaolin? Does the warrior-monk travel a
life of least resistance? Does he neglect his training simply because his muscles are sore?
Does he ignore his meditation because he is too tired? Does he refuse to fight when
murderous brigands attack the temple because he is scared? No, my son. The stream is
not the answer either.”
The last and youngest monk sat motionless, observing and contemplating the exchange
that ensued, mentally discriminating the infinite choices that lay before him in answering.
Seemingly intimidated to make a reply after the lack of success from his elders, the abbot
addressed the boy.
“Well? Come, come my boy. Dinner approaches and you must not make me late for
evening prayers.” The older boys stifled slight laughs into grins.
The youngest boy looked at the abbot, and then at the elder boys. He sat in utter stillness,
his consciousness focused on his inmost secret center, listening for that infallible inner
voice he had come to expect within himself. What was only a few seconds for him
seemed as an eternity, an unending Now in which time did not slow down, but ceased
altogether. He raised his lids at the abbot, and with a tranquility of voice and expression
seldom seen in the young, he humbly replied, “It is the willow.”
The old monk’s eyes flashed a sudden look belying both surprise and hope; a look
quickly suppressed to his usual affect of unassuming neutrality.
“Why the willow tree, young man? How is it that it gives us our greatest insight into
The boy began, “Because the mind must be like the branches of the willow tree, flexible
and supple in the changing winds of annica in samsara. Likewise, so must our bodies be
supple and flexible in our expression of quanfa. In contrast, our balance and stance,
whether physically or morally, must be solid and immovable like the willow’s great
trunk. Soft and hard, moving and immovable, the willow shows us unity in the duality of
“Go on,” said the abbot.
“The willow grows to the light,” replied the boy. “It seeks to grow toward the source of
its life and vitality, the sun. Such is the monk’s path on the wheel of samsara, ever
turning, ever growing in ascending spirals toward the Tao, toward the Tai Chi, toward the
Dharmakaya, toward the source of light from which we came.”
The boy paused for a moment, looking for confirmation or approval in the eyes of his
friends. Finding only curiosity, and perhaps some slight envy in their eyes, he summoned
up the courage to continue, confident that his conscience, his truest compass, would
accurately guide his tongue.
“The various styles of qunfa practiced all over the countryside are like the many leaves of
the willow. Regardless of their position on the tree, all are linked back to the roots that
support its life. They are not separate from one another, but One in the common bond
that connects them. In the history and evolution of our quanfa, the sifu that stretch back
to time immemorial prove to be our roots. The tradition in which our sifu now train us is
the ground that holds up the tree. And the many students that have passed through our
gates are as the many seeds dropped by the willow to perpetuate itself into future
generations. Like the willow, my sifu, all sprouts, all grows, and all blossoms in its own
“Anything else?” asked the abbot.
“My brothers,” said the boy, turning toward his elder friends. “It is the stream that feeds
the willow’s roots deep under the ground through the soil, allowing it to grow big and
green. And it is such a willow that provides the cool shade for the mighty tiger when it
boldly feasts after an exhilarating hunt. None are as much without the other. Each is
more because of what the other offers to it.”
The abbot made no reply, but sat quietly for a few seconds, absorbing the last vibrations
of the boy’s considerate tone. Without any further recognition, the old monk simply
smiled, arose like a cloud without his hands, turned easily, and then walked away.
The three boys went to complete their evening chores of sweeping and cleaning. As they
worked, they watched the sun descend into a rosy dusk bathed gold upon the
mountainside. They looked at each other and smiled. They were all happy to be alive.
That evening at dinner, the senior abbot filled a bowl of rice, walked to the juniors’ table,
and served it to the youngest monk.
“Thank you, sifu!” exclaimed the boy somewhat excited.
“Thank you, my son,” calmly replied his aging sifu.